"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Poverty Schooling, Chicago Style

From Kristof's blog at the NYTimes (ht to Monty Neill):
No Safety, No Homework


Victor Harbison teaches civics and history at Gage Park High School in Chicago, where he also sponsors the school newspaper. In 2000, he became the first National Board-certified high school history teacher in Chicago and he has worked on several educational reform projects during his career. Gage Park faces the all-too-common challenges of an urban school: test scores are so low that only 8% of students meet state standards; only 47% of its students graduate; and 97.4% of them live in poverty. Victor will help this blog keep education on its radar after the departure of long-time teacher and contributor Will Okun.

One of my students hasn’t done any homework for me for five weeks. He saw his older brother perish from gun violence two years ago in front of his house and today is in a constant state of worry about his mother who has cancer.

What should I do?

Today, I asked my students to raise their hands if they knew anyone who had been shot. Eighteen out of 23 raised their hands. I asked if they had ever been shot themselves and four kept their hands up. Three asked whether they should keep their hands up if they had been shot at but not hit.


These kids, my kids, wondered if being shot at but not hit qualified.

Those of us who teach in such urban settings have to acknowledge that it is the rare student who feels safe and secure. That is the reality urban teachers face, day after day after day.

At my school, two students died, tragically and violently, within a week of each other before we were halfway through October.

The local media started a “death watch” of Chicago public school students a few years ago, with the best of intentions I am sure, but still a bit on the morbid side, as anyone who has to deal with the aftermath will tell you.

Hundreds of children. And the end is nowhere in sight.

As I have pondered how to teach with all of this going on, I am reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (caveat: I only had one psych course in college). And I know I can’t meet the most basic need of my students: I can’t make them feel safe.

As unemployment figures go up, I imagine readers of the Times thinking about IRA’s and who will be on Obama’s economic team. … Me? When I hear unemployment is going up, I wonder how long before my students have to face violence in the home as well as on the streets. (There are tons of studies, like this one, that show a correlation between unemployment and a rise in domestic violence.)

People wonder why test scores are so low in urban schools. I’m not looking for an excuse, but it’s hard for me to stop thinking about the violence children experience every day in this city.

And then it hit too close to home. On October 25, a day after the murder of Chicago native Jennifer Hudson’s mother and brother in their home here, I got a call from a city police detective. He wanted to know if my 7-year-old daughter knew anything about the possible whereabouts of Ms. Hudson’s nephew. He asked me to talk to her and, if she knew anything, to call him back.

It turns out that I have a picture of Julian King hanging on the wall of my home, in my daughter’s play room. It is her first-grade class photo. And Julian has been in my daughter’s class for two years running.

I struggle with what to say to 16- and 17-year-old students on a daily basis. But having to talk to a 7-year-old about the possible murder of her classmate and friend…?

By Monday night, we had to find a way to talk to our daughter about Julian’s death. As horrible as I felt about it, I also realized that this was a conversation that thousands of Chicago families have had to have with their children, year after year after year.

And there was a measure of relief that the conversation was about someone outside the family. I can only imagine the feelings of those who have lost a loved one themselves.

School started the next day at 7:30 a.m. A little diminished, a little worse for wear, I gave out assignments and, once again, asked for homework.


  1. Anonymous12:50 PM

    How can we contact you to help?

  2. Anonymous2:25 AM

    Thanks for this nice post.